Camille Vivier, Twist

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Art Paper Editions (here). Hardcover, 80 pages, with 72 black-and-white and color reproductions. There are no essays or texts included. In an edition of 1000 copies. Design by 6’56”. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The contemporary female nude is a genre that feels very much up for revitalized debate. In recent years, there has been both an overt (and overdue) backlash against the male gaze of photography history and a flourishing of empowered female viewpoints. With objectifying approaches rapidly going out of favor and perspectives reclaiming and reinventing the genre on different terms gaining momentum, there is a definite feeling of flux and fluidity in the air. The pressure points of image-based attraction and seduction are being brashly renegotiated.

The French photographer Camille Vivier’s work over the past decade sits right atop this active fault line. Twist gathers together a sampler of images from her many editorial/fashion commissions and her personal projects, and layers them into a dialogue that wrestles with form, fantasy, and agency. Her pictures are charged with provocations and knowing allusions, deliberately engaging and reimagining the tropes of sensuality.

The pairing of images that appear together on a single spread isn’t an editing decision that we typically spend much time discussing, but in Twist, many of these choices set up the back-and-forth comparisons that give the photobook its punch. Vivier uses a wide variety of objects as foils for the female form – an overturned crystal goblet, curved rock outcroppings, melting candles, and ornate fountains, as well as a number of massive anthropomorphic sculptures and built structures, where carved stone, architectural details, vertical columns, and hard edged geometries take on or abstract the familiar shapes of the female body. Oversized feet and hands, primordial fertility forms, and surreal representations of femininity provide an aesthetic foundation to which Vivier responds, either by pairing images that have unlikely but resonant visual echoes or by physically posing nude models on, atop, or near these sculptural totems and icons.

Vivier seems happy to take on the cliches of the female nude, especially when she can upend the male gaze and redirect the balance of power. A female nude posed atop a motorcycle is probably the apex of the male rocker fantasy, but Vivier’s motorcycle women either take control of the interaction or seem bored by the attention; in one picture, she frustrates the male gaze completely by reflecting and distorting the nude body in the silver gas tank. Other images take similar sexy props – thigh high boots, gold body paint, a see-through wet shirt, long white gloves, a bathtub – and subtly diverts their erotic charge elsewhere, the models not waiting passively to be seen but actively relaxing, squatting, or posing with intention, self-absorption, or outright disregard.

Vivier’s style is clearly rooted in the studio setting of the fashion world, but references to other photographers can also be found in some of her pictures. A few images recreate the mannered staging and saturated palette of Paul Outerbridge, particularly one pose with a pink rose cupped between the legs of a model standing against a blue wall. Another group of images recalls the tactile surfaces of Sheila Metzner’s nudes, where soft light graininess becomes feathery. And a third cluster takes Deborah Turbeville’s moody outdoor fairy tales one or two steps further, posing a frizzy blonde model on a white horse, atop a wood pile, and puzzlingly on a trampoline. Tweaking the nature of fantasy is part of all of these modes, as is the fog-maker smoke, the stagey tinted light, the big bushy hair, and the shimmery fabrics. Vivier is deliberately pushing the sensual toward the surreal, and locking into a delicate strangeness that keeps us off balance.

Twist is full of contrasts that get smarter the more we look at them. Two images use large sculptures (one of an oversized Ionic column capital, the other of a folded hand) to gently caress and support passive nude models, the interplays of hard and soft or stone and flesh making the linked curves all the more sinuous. But in three other pictures where models sit on or interact with chairs, the poses are all sharp angles and matter-of-fact stares – a big haired nude model with one knee on a metal folding chair amid misty smoke might sound plausibly seductive in words, but the image is direct and immediate to the point of confrontation.

Almost regardless of the setup, Vivier’s approach feels active and intent, in ways that force us to rethink our ingrained assumptions about what a female nude is supposed to look like or to elicit in terms of a response. What’s exciting is that she has discovered (or created) an alternate strain of beauty that, even in its most fantastic and dreamlike forms, feels authentic. As a summary of Vivier’s recent career, Twist is a challenging photobook, but one that thoughtfully and systematically delivers on resetting our expectations.

Collector’s POV: Camille Vivier is represented by Galerie Für Moderne Fotografie in Berlin (here). Her work has little secondary market history so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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